New Parks and More

If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.

~President Lyndon B. Johnson

Just a reminder, these latest posts (and the next few) are about our truck camping adventure this past May, a month-long wandering across some of the beautiful public lands of our country, taking in what we could as we traveled. The last post highlighted one of our best hikes of our entire trip, Buckskin Gulch in Utah. It was a bonus hike in that it was high on Melissa’s bucket list and it happened on our anniversary (due, in part, to a one day delay for minor truck repairs). We ended our anniversary day on another high note with a perfect campsite on the north rim of Grand Canyon!

Our phenomenal campsite along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Kaibab National Forest (click photos to enlarge)

This iconic national park was not on our original itinerary, but when we found ourselves only an hour and a half from the north rim, we decided to go since I had never been to the park and Melissa had only been to the “Disneyland-esque” south rim. So, once we got cell service, she started googling national forest roads in Kaibab National Forest. She found what looked liked dispersed camping opportunities right on the north rim if you were wiling to drive 20+ miles of dirt roads off the main entrance road to the park. We always take a deep breath when heading out on unknown roads, especially long stretches, but they turned out to be fine. There were a few choices for turns that looked like they got close to the rim, so she picked one, and we found ourselves parked about 50 feet from the edge of an incredible view point. Not a bad way to end an already spectacular day. Once again, we were relatively isolated with only one tent camper within hearing distance (we could not see him, but we heard him occasionally close his car door). Farther down the road was the main view point with a few other campers, but we basically had this incredible vista of the Grand Canyon to ourselves! We admired a wonderful sunset and sunrise from our camp chairs on the rim, marveling at the vast story laid bare in the rocky landscape that stretched before us to the far horizon.

Sunset over the Grand Canyon from our campsite
Sunrise the next morning
Mountain Phlox on the rim

The north rim receives only about 10% of the approximately 6 million visitors the park receives each year (last year was about half that due to the pandemic) so we were pleased to have relatively small crowds at the lookouts we visited the next morning.

The layers of rock represent millions of years of change from tropical seas to sand dunes to mud flats, all recorded in the stories told by their structure and the fossils and minerals they contain.
A quote on an exhibit panel from John Strong Newberry – a physician, geologist and paleontologist that explored this region in the 1800’s – Nowhere on the Earth’s surface…are the secrets of its structure so revealed as here.

Visiting the Grand Canyon and gazing out upon its vastness, and realizing the millions of years of Earth’s history that it represents, is a humbling experience. And to do it in a place that was relatively uncrowded and to spend the night on its rim is something that will stick with us for a long time and that will no doubt beckon us to explore this grand landscape further in the future.

That afternoon, we debated returning to our rim campsite, but, with no guarantee it would still be available, and wanting to get an early start the next day (which meant not driving the entire 22 miles of dirt road) back to the paved highway we settled for a closer campsite in the national forest in a large meadow surrounded by conifers and aspens.

Aspen trunks distorted by snow in Kaibab NF

In talking with a woman in an outdoor store in Kanab, AZ, Melissa was torn between her desire to visit Zion National Park (it was so close) and this woman’s suggestion to skip it because it was so crowded. In the end, we opted to bypass the crowds and go directly to Bryce Canyon, another park that would be new for both of us. The drive there is incredible with beautiful vistas all along the way, including a stop at the wonderful Red Canyon Visitor Center in Dixie National Forest, not far from the entrance too Bryce Canyon. This area looks like another place we will need to explore more in future visits.

Red Canyon spires

As we entered Bryce Canyon we felt the pressure of crowds at every turn, long lines at the shuttle tops, and road access to two of the major view points closed due to lack of parking (we were glad we skipped the more popular Zion, if these were the crowds here). We drove through the park on the 18-mile primary road route, stopping to take in the strange geology that has made this park so famous.

In the 1870’s, a geologist (Clarence Dutton) first came up with the idea that the geology of this vast region resembled a staircase, going from the ancient rocks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and proceeding through Zion and into Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bryce Canyon with a series of cliff formations (the steps) of younger and younger rocks. Bryce Canyon is the top step of that sedimentary staircase and its famed hoodoos have been created by a variety of erosional forces from the edges of the high plateau in a series of processes that proceeds from plateau edge to wall to window (or arch) to hoodoo.

Bryce Canyon is actually a series of amphitheaters (not a canyon) eroded from the edge of a high plateau

A hoodoo is a tall, thin spire of rock formed by natural weathering forces (in Bryce Canyon it is mainly ice and rain). The area experiences over 200 days a year where temperatures average above freezing in the day and below freezing at night, leading to a large potential for so-called ice wedging, where water seeps into cracks in the rock and then freezes (and expands), putting tremendous pressure on the rocks and causing them to split apart. As a result of this weathering and the geology of the rocks here, Bryce Canyon has the largest concentration of hoodoos in the world.

Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon NP
Natural Bridge, Bryce Canyon NP
Ponderosa Canyon, Bryce Canyon NP
Near Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon NP

Parking areas for the popular view points were still closed when we came back down the main road but we drove up to the lodge and parked which gave us access to some of the more scenic vistas (they always put lodges close to the most iconic areas in the park). It was another very windy day, but we managed a short hike down into some of the hoodoos for a different perspective of this unusual landscape.

That night, we went to a place recommended by that same woman in the outdoor store for a take-out dinner – Hell’s Backbone Grill, a James Beard-recognized restaurant in Boulder, Utah, a town of 236 people. It was delicious and we highly recommend it, as well as the quirky, artistic Burr Trail Grill and Outpost next door. We dined in our truck (due to the wind) and camped on a desert road off the incredibly scenic nearby Burr Trail Road. The next morning, we headed for Capitol Reef National Park (another new one for us) and spent the day stopping at various view points and hiking the 2-mile round trip down the Capitol Gorge Trail to a unique geologic formation called The Tanks.

The Fluted Wall, Capitol Reef NP
Tree man along the trail, Capitol Reef NP

The Tanks are potholes formed by scouring action of rocks and water (they contain water most of the year I have read) in a narrow drainage down into Capitol Gorge, When they contain water they house a unique ecosystem of tadpoles, fairy shrimp, and algae.

The Tanks, Capitol Reef NP
Capitol Gorge Trail, Capitol Reef NP

That night we drove up onto a rocky forest service road on Boulder Mountain and found a great campsite in the aspens with a creek and meadow in view. The next morning we headed for another spot recommended by that chance acquaintance in the outdoor store, the Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail. This is a well-known easy to moderate hike (6-miles round trip) to a beautiful waterfall. You are walking along a somewhat rare perennial water source, Calf Creek, along the way. The trail starts at the far end of a beautiful (but full when we were there) campground along the creek.

The dark streaks on the canyon walls are so-called desert varnish, formed when wind blown dust and rain leave behind trace amounts of iron and manganese. The resulting oxides created by rainwater and bacterial action harden to form thick layers of dark color.

The water leads to a diverse riparian habitat in the desert with beaver ponds, sizeable trout, and a host of wildflowers and bird life along the trail. We saw another new species for us, Black-headed Grosbeaks, flitting in and out of the shrub thickets as well as Yellow warblers and Spotted Towhees.

Beaver ponds and lush greenery along Calf Creek

Finally, you hear the waterfall and squeals of delight as the braver hikers venture into the cold pool at its base. This stunning waterfall is 126 high and drops down through a slit in a semi-circular canyon wall, forming a true desert oasis.

Lower Calf Creek Falls, part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

After soaking in the cool spray, we headed back along the same trail, taking in the diversity of life along the creek. I need to brush up on my desert/riparian plants before our next trip as there was quite a variety in bloom as we headed back to the car. By the way, the parking lot here (and at many of the popular spots we stopped) is quite small, so we ended up parking a 1/2 mile or so above the trailhead on the main road. Best advice is to plan ahead and get there as early as you can.

Cactus flowers along the trail
A Globemallow of some sort (perhaps Smallflower Globemallow?)
A delicate wildflower along the trail (perhaps an aster or fleabane)

We returned to our campsite in the aspens (we had left a chair and table there to claim it) and relaxed the rest of the afternoon and thought about where our destination might be as we head out the next morning…

Note – Now that we are back and hearing the news of the extreme heat, drought conditions, and huge crowds of tourists descending on our Western parks and public lands, we feel extremely fortunate to have had the wonderful experiences we did back in May. It looks like another tough summer in many Western states for abnormally high temperatures (though this may become the new norm due to climate change) and wild fires. I just saw a news release stating that the entirety of Kaibab National Forest is closed to the public effective today due to drought conditions and fire danger. The Forest Service is evacuating campers and closing all roads for the foreseeable future. Here’s hoping for better conditions soon.

10 thoughts on “New Parks and More

  1. Fantastic report on the canyons . It’s been so long ago that I visited the southwest so these photos are re -imagined in my memories!

  2. I echo Sue’s comments – I haven’t been there for a long time either, but they’re on my bucket list for one more trip. I hope neither of you sleepwalk being so close to the rim of the canyon that one night!! Lots of interesting information, as usual, in your blog Mike. And it’s wonderful that you can share those adventures with each other. Happy belated anniversary!

    • Thanks, Mary Kay. We have actually camped closer to some edges before (but probably not as steep a drop!). It was a great way to celebrate a special day. and we do feel lucky to be able to experience these magical places together.

  3. That campsite on the rim of the Grand Canyon is amazing, what a lovely place t9 spend the night! I’m heading to southern Utah in a couple months, so thank you for giving me some hiking recommendations.

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